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COVID-19 and the Dynamics of Mass Atrocities

US Holocaust Memorial Museum

By Alex Vandermaas-Peeler, Research Intern 

The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to have long-lasting consequences for nearly every aspect of civilization, including the perpetration and prevention of mass atrocities. As part of our annual Sudikoff Seminar, the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide brought together scholars, practitioners, and civil society representatives to discuss possible effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the dynamics of mass atrocities and atrocity prevention. Participants discussed three different ways in which pandemic-related changes could affect mass atrocities:

  1. Weakening states

  2. Exacerbating discrimination

  3. Eroding democratic institutions 

While these mechanisms may not themselves directly cause mass atrocities, previous research has linked the onset or duration of mass atrocities with the occurrence of these phenomena. In recent months we have seen some of the scenarios participants discussed begin to play out. Current events around the world call for a more focused lens on how this pandemic may impact the dynamics of mass atrocities.

Weakening states

Research on state capacity and mass atrocities has mixed conclusions. Strong states have been linked to higher risk of state-led mass atrocities, especially in early research on genocide. More recent research has emphasized political instability, which is more common in weaker states, as a mass atrocity risk factor. One way to measure state capacity is through proxy variables like lower GDP and higher infant mortality, which quantitative research, including our Early Warning Project, finds are associated with higher risk of mass atrocity onset. 

The COVID-19 pandemic and related economic crises are significantly taxing states’ capacities. Many states are struggling to provide adequate health care, testing infrastructure, unemployment benefits, and other public goods and services. Therefore, their capacity to commit mass atrocities against civilian populations might be more limited. However, states’ ability to respond to non-state mass atrocity perpetrators might also be constrained. In Colombia, for example, both leftist guerrillas and right wing paramilitaries have used the pandemic to cement control over long-contested conflict zones after government forces withdrew during the outbreak. Armed groups have taken to enforcing social distancing guidelines themselves with accelerated violence and killings, claiming the territory has been “forgotten by the Colombian state.” 

Exacerbating discrimination 

Systematic discrimination and violence are associated with higher risk of mass atrocities. Quantitiative studies find that the presence of state-led discrimination and prior atrocities are associated with higher occurance of genocide or politicide. Case studies of Armenia, Nazi Germany, Rwanda, and Darfur support these findings that systematic discrimination often precedes mass atrocities. 

Historically, immigrants are often blamed and marginalized during public health crises due in part to their visibility and vulnerability. These patterns have begun to reemerge during the COVID-19 pandemic. African nationals in Guangzhou, China have reported widespread discrimination. Additonally, due to the origin of the virus there have been reports of discrimination and hate crimes against Chinese people, and people of Asian descent more broadly, across the globe. Victims of previous mass atrocities are also uniquely vulnerable for COVID-related discrimation. In Burma, the Rohingya have long suffered persecution and discrimination, including genocide. In Bangladesh and Malaysia, Rohingya refugees who fled the genocidal campaign now face further discrimination and scapegoating because they are suspected of carrying the virus, but also as a part of a broader xenophobic campaign. 

Eroding democratic institutions 

Scholars have identified periods of transitions between regime types as the highest risk for mass atrocity and conflict. Evidence around whether autocracies themselves create a risk for mass atrocity is mixed. Case studies of Nazi, Soviet, and Cambodian authoritarian regimes indicate that authoritarianism can provide unchecked power to genocidal regimes. However, across cases anocratic or hybrid regimes are known to be the most fraught and high levels of uncertainty can lead to more violence

Even prior to the pandemic, the world was on trend toward autocracy. Many of the tools states have used to address the COVID-19 pandemic, such as states of emergency and restrictions on freedom of movement, are themselves associated with enduring shifts away from democracy. While these types of restrictions are often necessary and appropriate to stop the spread of disease, they may also be used to repress civilian populations. In Zimbabwe, for example, President Mnangagwa is accused of using pandemic restrictions to jail members of his opposition. In Hungary, President Orbán has used the outbreak as a pretense to expand his powers, suspend elections, severely restrict freedom of press, and suppress opposition.


The future of mass atrocities in the time of COVID-19 remains uncertain, but these mechanisms provide insight for how the pandemic could shape the dynamics of atrocity crimes. As the world adjusts to a ‘new normal,’ the atrocity prevention community should prepare for the ways in which the pandemic will shape its work for years to come. 

This seminar was made possible by the generous support of the Sudikoff Family Foundation, which funds the Museum’s Sudikoff Annual Interdisciplinary Seminar on Genocide Prevention.